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After Son Enlists To Fight In Ukraine, Mother Goes From Backer To Critic Of Putin's War

People in Kazan protest against the war in Ukraine on February 24.
People in Kazan protest against the war in Ukraine on February 24.

Polling suggests most Russians back President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, and Lora* counted herself among that majority.

The 55-year-old mother of two from Kazan, the capital of the Russia's Tatarstan region, said Russia was merely defending itself in remarks to RFE/RL at the beginning of March.

She said her main source of information on what Putin has described as a "special military operation," came from official state-run media, which is forbidden from describing the invasion as a "war."

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Ordinary Russians can face up to 15 years in prison for questioning or contradicting the Kremlin's war narrative, with thousands detained so far by police nationwide for speaking out.

"War is horrible, but we are defending ourselves. If we didn't attack now, they would have attacked us. This is America. The West would have bombed us. Is that normal? We are only defending ourselves," Lora said, echoing much of the Kremlin's narrative that is amplified by state-run media and dominates in Russia, as nearly all independent voices have been silenced by Putin's government.

However, Lora, who requested her last name not be used for fear of official reprisals, had a radical change of heart a few weeks later once her own son Vyacheslav joined Russia's armed forces and was due to be sent off to fight in Ukraine. He was following in his father's footsteps, who, according to Lora, had once fought in Chechnya and more recently in Syria.

The Russian invasion, launched in the early hours of February 24 and described by U.S. defense officials as the largest conventional attack since World War II, has forced nearly 4 million Ukrainians to flee the country, according to UN data.

The UN says at least 1,000 civilians have died, although the actual figure is feared to be much higher.

What Kremlin officials had hoped would be a quick military victory has turned into a nightmare, with much of its forces bogged down or even in retreat in some areas.

Russian officials, including Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have said since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24 that the goal of the wide-scale attack was to demilitarize and "de-Nazify" Ukraine and topple its democratically elected government.

Despite all attempts to take over Ukraine's main cities, including the capital, Kyiv, Russian armed forces have been unable to do so during one month of intensive fighting. Battle lines near Kyiv have remained frozen for weeks, with the two main Russian armored columns stuck northwest and east of the capital.

With its forces no longer advancing, the Russian Defense Ministry on March 25 indicated that it had scaled back its goals in Ukraine, with the focus now on taking over Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, commonly known as the Donbas, parts of which came under separatist control after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

During the last month of fighting, the Defense Ministry has only twice released figures on Russian casualties in Ukraine, the second time being on March 25, when it said 1,351 Russian servicemen had died. That number is likely much higher. A NATO official, quoted by The Washington Post on March 24, said that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russians soldiers had been killed.

Komsomolskaya pravda, a pro-Kremlin newspaper, on March 20 reported that almost 10,000 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine, before quickly deleting the numbers and later claiming the site had been hacked.

According to Lora, Vyacheslav decided to sign a military contract to serve in Ukraine on March 6.

"'I'll go and serve the motherland. I want to do this,' is all he said," Lora recounted, adding that her 30-year-old son, who had served a year in the Russian Airborne Forces, was leaving behind a wife and a newborn child in Kazan to go fight in Ukraine.

"I told him that only thugs and mercenaries were being sent to fight," Lora said, expressing fear her son was unprepared for what awaited him despite his military service.

"Well, he sat in the forest for a year in a military uniform, jumped [from a plane] with a parachute, and twice they let him use an old machine gun. F**k, what is he doing with such training in a war?"

Army conscripts receive their uniforms at the Yegorshino regional assembly station before departing for service with the Russian military in April 2021.
Army conscripts receive their uniforms at the Yegorshino regional assembly station before departing for service with the Russian military in April 2021.

Lora suspects it was less patriotic fervor but rather economic necessity that prompted her son and others like him to sign up, lured by the relatively generous financial benefits.

"50,000 rubles ($505) is the pay; then you can get a mortgage, and the wounded can get up to about 3 million ($30,300)," Lora explained, adding that local job prospects with Russia facing unprecedented Western sanctions for its aggression in Ukraine were especially bleak.

"A lot of my friends have headed off to the war because they couldn't find work. There are no jobs here and prices have risen; there's simply nothing to live on."

"And my fool lost his job too and is eagerly going off to war in order to somehow survive," Lora continued. "After all, he needs to support a child and there are no maternity leave payments. Because of the hard times, there were fights; he was also arguing with his wife. So, a 30-year-old guy voluntarily wants to go to war; just running away from everyday life."

The dead bodies of Russian soldiers are seen in military vehicle on a road in the town of Bucha, close to the capital, Kyiv.
The dead bodies of Russian soldiers are seen in military vehicle on a road in the town of Bucha, close to the capital, Kyiv.

At the time of interview, published on March 24, Lora said her son had not left yet for Ukraine, but worried whether he would return alive or seriously wounded once he did deploy.

"They're bringing back lots of them. Some of them don't have legs, some don't have arms. Basically, these are fresh contract soldiers -- that is, guys who just joined the military before leaving for Ukraine. They are young, many who've just graduated," she said. Lore was recounting what she had been told by a friend who works at a military hospital in Rostov, near the border with Ukraine and where many of Russia's wounded are reportedly brought.

Once a believer in Putin's war, Lora is now angrily anti-war as she faces the prospects of seeing her only son sent off to fight.

"How many wars have there been? How many people died? But no one remembers why our people went to fight in Chechnya, Afghanistan, or Syria," Lora said.

"How many people died in vain in a foreign land. I wish I knew what they were fighting for. But we will only know the truth in 30 years."

*CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Lora's name was given incorrectly.

Written in Prague by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities

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